Raw food diets have been very popular over the last few years, and we are now seeing more raw food cafes and raw food snacks than ever. Raw foods often take the form of less guilty substitutes for cakes and sweets, replacing added sugar with dates, nuts, and cacao. However, where did the raw food diet actually come from and what exactly is it?
As the name suggests, raw food enthusiasts espouse a diet comprised completely, or at least substantially, of uncooked foods. Some raw foodies include uncooked meat, eggs and/or milk in their diet. But for the most part, the raw movement is led by vegans, who eat only raw fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. The history of the movement can be traced back as far as the 1850s, when Presbyterian minister and promoter of dietary reform Sylvester Graham started the American Vegetarian Society. But Sydney nutritionist and blogger Catherine Saxelby said the raw food diet really came to prominence about 30 years ago.
What does the raw food diet involve and what is the purpose of it? One school of thought is that cooking food above 40 degrees Celsius can actually destroy nutrients and enzymes that are important for our body, and can produce harmful chemicals. All raw and fermented products are allowed including wine and raw milk/ meat. Any food cooked over 40 degrees is out, including most grains and legumes as these often require heating to make them edible. This all sounds impressive/accurate/credible/etc on paper, but is it actually beneficial to follow this diet?
But Ms Saxelby said that was only true to a certain extent. Cooking does destroy some heat-sensitive vitamins, such as vitamin C and folate. Eating too much burnt, barbecued and char-grilled food has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, because of the formation of carcinogenic substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). But research has shown that while some nutrients are lost through cooking, most vegetables retain substantial concentrations of their vitamins and minerals, particularly if you use a wide variety of different cooking techniques — including steaming, blanching, simmering and stir frying. And in some cases, cooking fruit and vegetables actually makes it easier for the body to absorb the nutrients they contain.
There are pros and cons to the raw food diet. However, compared to the current Australian diet, the raw food diet would be a healthier choice given that 35% of Australian’s energy intake comes from “extra” foods – foods that are not essential to good health and are high in saturated fat/ added sugar/ salt.
It’s an extremely healthy diet. You are eating almost all plant-based food, very little overly processed food, Associate Professor Crowe said. But it’s unclear whether the raw food diet delivers more health benefits than a normal vegan diet that includes cooked food, as very little research has been conducted. You’ll probably lose weight if you follow it (the diet). But the reason you’ll lose weight is because of how restrictive it is, he said.
One of the major negatives of the diet is that it is actually very labour intensive. You can’t throw together a simple meat and veg, but rather need to put a lot more thought and preparation into most meals. It can be quite fiddly too; there is a lot of chopping and combining of dressings involved. The other big downfall is that major food groups are cut out – meat, dairy, grains, and a lot of vegetables that can’t be eaten raw.
The restrictions can also have an impact on your social life. Another factor to consider is food safety and hygiene, as cooking kills many of the bacteria responsible for food poisoning. But on the plus side, if you’re not eating meats — especially chicken and eggs — then you’ll be avoiding some of the leading causes of food-borne illness. And those sweet raw food treats at your local cafe also come with a warning
Nuts and dried fruits, and coconut fat — even if it’s raw and uncooked — are still very calorie dense, Ms Saxelby said. You need to listen to your stomach and stop eating when it’s full … so maybe you have one bliss ball, you don’t have six.
At the end of the day, the raw food diet is a good diet to take tips from but perhaps not to follow 100%. Increasing our intake of raw ingredients would definitely be beneficial to our health and current Australian diet. However, it is good to get a balance of cooked and fresh vegetables, and it is not advised that people cut out entire food groups.